Lazarus’ resurrection pushed religious leaders over the edge

Father John A. Kiley

The resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus Christ was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, the religious leaders were profoundly disturbed that Jesus Christ had exalted himself above the Sabbath.

“The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” Jesus forcefully reminded the Scribes and Pharisees of his day. He knew how much the Jews respected the Lord’s day, and indeed he also religiously observed the Sabbath. But he knew also that he had to declare himself above even this perennial sign of the ancient covenant with Moses. Yes, the Sabbath was important, but the Son of God who became man was even more important.

Jesus also riled the religious leaders of his day by the ease with which he forgave sins. “Who has forgiven sins except God alone?” the Jewish leaders argued among themselves. The forgiveness of sins was indeed a divine prerogative. Jesus nonetheless forgave the sins of the many who approached as readily as he healed their limbs, opened their eyes and unsealed their ears. This ready forgiveness did not sit well with either the Scribes or the Sadducees. The charge of blasphemy came readily to the lips of Jesus’ antagonists.

Still, it was not Jesus’ alleged disregard for the Sabbath nor his presumptuous compassion toward sinners that sent the religious leaders into a frenzy. Rather, it was the calling of Lazarus back to life that truly pushed the Jewish elite towards frustration, consternation and murder. The religious leaders were angered that Jesus was attracting larger crowds who reveled in his actions and were persuaded by his sermons. The Jewish bosses were also upset that news of Jesus’ popularity might reach the ears of the Roman authorities and upset the political as well as the religious status quo. Alarmed by this double threat to their leadership, the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired in their treachery. St. John writes tersely, “So from that day on they planned to kill him.”

The Jewish leaders understood with ironic perceptiveness that the gift of life, both bodily life and spiritual life, was central to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself had lingered intentionally before rescuing Lazarus from the dead at Bethany. Jesus wanted the reality and tragedy of physical death to sink deeply into the consciousness of Martha, Mary, the consoling crowds and his bewildered disciples. Jesus was preparing to draw these mourners from the depths of grief to the heights of bliss. Jesus was being calculatingly dramatic. Those who were understandably appalled by Lazarus’ death would be joyously euphoric at his resurrection. The contrast between death and life would be stunning.

Of course, Jesus had worked miracles on the Sabbath and elicited much talk for his bold activity. Of course, Jesus had forgiven sins at banquets in the homes of the rich and before services in the temple, and his compassion evoked much discussion. Jesus had indeed been in trouble before. But the resuscitation of his friend Lazarus from death to life was too eloquent a gesture on the part of Jesus to be endured by the religious authorities. It was bad enough to profane the Sabbath, and certainly rash to forgive sins. But to call a person back from eternity was the final impertinence. To display before crowds the ability to reach into heaven itself and call back a soul, to give convincing evidence that one was in touch with the very source of creation itself, to display mastery not just over limbs and eyes and ears and tongues but over existence itself — this exercise in boldness pushed the religious leaders over the edge.

Jesus restored life to Lazarus at the expense of his own life. He was setting the stage for the redemption not only of a friend but actually of the whole world. Jesus would give his life as a ransom for the many. Just as truly as he gave earthly life back to Lazarus standing beside that Bethany grave, so he would give eternal life to the whole world hanging on the cross at Calvary. It is no wonder that the Jews were irate. Jesus had penetrated the veil of eternity once for a friend and he might do it again for the world. He had to be stopped.